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WHAT IS THE ONGOING SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION?

Focus: GS-II Environment and Ecology

Introduction

  • The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be one of the most serious environmental threats to the persistence of civilisation, according to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
  • The research claims that this extinction is human-caused and is more immediate than climate destruction.

What is the mass extinction of species?

  • Mass extinction refers to a substantial increase in the degree of extinction or when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short period of time. So far, during the entire history of the Earth, there have been five mass extinctions. The sixth, which is ongoing, is referred to as the Anthropocene extinction.
  • The five mass extinctions that took place in the last 450 million years have led to the destruction of 70-95 per cent of the species of plants, animals and microorganisms that existed earlier.
  • These extinctions were caused by “catastrophic alterations” to the environment, such as massive volcanic eruptions, depletion of oceanic oxygen or collision with an asteroid. After each of these extinctions, it took millions of years to regain species comparable to those that existed before the event.

What is the sixth mass extinction?

  • Researchers have described it as the “most serious environmental problem” since the loss of species will be permanent.
  • The study analysed 29,400 species of terrestrial vertebrates and determined which of these are on the brink of extinction because they have fewer than 1,000 individuals. Out of the studied species, they concluded that over 515 of them are near extinction, and that the current loss of species, which is based on the disappearance of their component populations, has been occurring since the 1800s.
  • Most of these 515 species are from South America (30 per cent), followed by Oceania (21 per cent), Asia (21 percent) and Africa (16 percent) among others. Further, attributing this mass extinction to humans, they said that one of the reasons that humanity is an “unprecedented threat” to many living organisms is because of their growing numbers. The loss of species has been occurring since human ancestors developed agriculture over 11,000 years ago. Since then, the human population has increased from about 1 million to 7.7 billion.

What can be done to help?

  • Significantly, the study calls for a complete ban on wildlife trade as many of the species currently endangered or on the brink of extinction are being decimated by legal and illegal wildlife trade.
  • Researchers point out that the current COVID-19 pandemic, while not fully understood, is also linked to the wildlife trade.

Impact on Ecosystem when a species goes extinct

  • According to the Center for Biological Diversity, when species go extinct, the impact can be tangible such as in the form of a loss in crop pollination and water purification.
  • Further, if a species has a specific function in an ecosystem, the loss can lead to consequences for other species by impacting the food chain.
  • When the number of individuals in a population or species drops too low, its contributions to ecosystem functions and services become unimportant, its genetic variability and resilience is reduced, and its contribution to human welfare may be lost.

-Source: The Hindu

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September 2022
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